We’ve all heard it before –– late-night eating will make you fat and won’t let you sleep. And while this might be partly true, it’s not the whole story. There’s plenty of research on what foods to eat or avoid before bed. But not enough on the impact timing has on sleep. An early 2021 study is one of the first to monitor the effects of food intake on sleep architecture.

Here are the high points: 

  • The study examined the effect of two dinner times on sleep –– routine dinner (RD, 5 hours before sleep) and late dinner (LD, 1 hour before sleep).
  • The sleep stages participants experienced were similar between the two conditions tested.
  • LD participants experienced deeper sleep faster. 

By shifting dinner to one hour before participants went to sleep, researchers found that participants experienced a deeper sleep at the beginning of the night. Now, this might be because of postprandial somnolence –– aka a “food coma.” While the research around what we call “food comas” is inadequate and inconsistent, this study suggests that adjusting food intake time may be beneficial for people with sleep-onset insomnia, which is a subcategory of insomnia that involves a person having trouble initiating sleep. 

Pros And Cons Of Nighttime Eating

Does this study prove that eating later is the key to sleeping better? Not really. More research is needed. However, it did find that eating later didn’t significantly negatively impact sleep quality for participants. So if that’s what your schedule allows, you’re not setting yourself for poor sleep. 

Pros:

  • Maintain blood sugar –– Have you ever woken up and felt groggy and like you had no energy? You might have been experiencing low blood sugar levels. Eating before bed can help regulate your blood sugar. High levels can also increase sleep disruptions, so be careful to choose the right food. 
  • Good food choices can help you sleep better –– Food comas can help you fall asleep faster. Just don’t reach for the comfort foods that are high in fat or sugar. Opt for an apple with almond butter or greek yogurt. 
  • Curb cravings –– If you are prone to giving in to your cravings, planning a bedtime snack a few hours before bed can help ensure you make good food choices. 

Cons:

  • Bad food choices can keep you up at night –– Eating fatty foods or spicy foods might leave you tossing and turning all night. Besides the point that it might make it hard to sleep, your body won’t digest it as fast and could result in weight gain. 
  • Indigestion or heartburn –– If you don’t give your body enough time to digest the food you eat before you lay down for bed, you might experience indigestion, heartburn or acid reflux. It goes without saying that this would make it pretty hard to sleep. 
  • Health concerns –– Regular late-night eating is connected to a number of health risks, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes

If You’re Going To Eat Before Bed… 

You might be a person who has always snacked before bed. We’re not going to tell you that you have to stop, we’re just suggesting that you make healthy choices. You should try and avoid food that’s high in sugar or fat –– yes, that means the fun stuff like cake and french fries. Aim for foods with complex carbs or protein –– like fruits or nuts. 

Too Long, Didn’t Read?

The study found that the sleep stages participants experienced were similar between the two conditions tested, though later dinner times did result in deeper sleep faster. That does not mean that eating later will help you sleep better. At the end of the day, we need more research before we draw any conclusion. But we suspect that there is no one-size-fits-all meal time –- everybody is different, and you have to find what works best for you.